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The latest phenomenon to hit reality TV is, thankfully, something a bit more substantial than Jersey Shore. MTV’s Catfish follows people who have dated on the internet, but never met in real life. The term ‘catfish’ refers to one or both of the parties creating a false persona online, pretending to be someone they are not.

The idea of documenting these individuals originated with the 2010 documentary of the same name, which followed several couples who had been together for years before meeting face-to-face. The practice is becoming increasingly commonplace on social media networks like Facebook and Twitter, with motivations ranging from the need to feel wanted or appreciated to harassing others for fun. To some degree, everyone puts up a façade online, but we are learning that the problem runs far deeper than white lies and playful misdirection.

In our modern world, technology has made us more connected, but ‘catfishing’ is an example of how many members of society have responded by actively distancing themselves from one another.  It turns out creating a fake identity online is incredibly commonplace; some sources estimate that there may be as many as 83 million fake Facebook accounts. With the large majority of the world’s personal and professional communications now occurring online, one has to wonder how many catfish we interact with every day.

Hook, Line, and Sinker

Just last month, the story of Notre Dame standout linebacker Manti Te’o and his involvement in a catfish-style ‘hoax’ brought the scenario into the spotlight. Even the Heisman Trophy candidate, with the full attention of the media, was unable to avoid the perils of this bizarre trend, exposing some serious implications of placing trust in an online persona.

Thanks to the TV show and the Te’o saga, Americans are gaining a far better understanding of the risks involved with shifting our everyday interactions into the online space. For businesses, evaluating this new lay of the land in social media has become an important part of the agenda, as marketers spend valuable budget distributing messages to millions of social citizens who may not be who they say they are. Discovering who the audience really is, behind the mask, will help businesses avoid falling victim to the same mistakes as those who were baited and hooked before.

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